“When you are art gone forth wholly from the creature [human], and have become nothing to all that is nature and creature, then you are in that eternal one, which is God himself, and then you will perceive and feel the highest virtue of love. Also, that I said whoever findes it finds nothing and all things; that is also true, for he finds a supernatural, supersensual Abyss, having no ground, where there is no place to live in; and he finds also nothing that is like it, and therefore it may be compared to nothing, for it is deeper than anything, and is as nothing to all things, for it is not comprehensible; and because it is nothing, it is free from all things, and it is that only Good, which a man cannot express or utter what it is. But that I lastly said, he that finds it, finds all things, is also true; it has been the beginning of all things, and it rules all things. If you find it, you come into that ground from whence all things proceed, and wherein they subsist, and you are in it a king over all the works of God.” -Jakob Boehme, The Way to Christ, 1623
If more religious institutions embraced (or at least acknowledged) perennialism, it would tremendously lesson the impression and/or reality of dogmatism, and membership would increase. Why should we care about membership? I can immediately think of a three reasons: 1. So that more people have places in which they can approach the sacred as a community, 2. Using the symbols and stories with which they have grown-up and which they find most powerful, and 3. joining in the good charity work that most of those groups do. (e.g. “I would like to feed the homeless with you, but please spare me your self-righteousness and your exclusivist vision of God!”) As it is right now, many religious groups (I am thinking here about many Roman Catholic churches, some Episcopal and Anglican churches, many evangelical churches, and some Muslim communities) are retracting and becoming less ecumenical, less perennialist, and more exclusivist. My hope and faith is that this is part of the ebb-and-flow, a minor setback on the way to a brighter future. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, at some point had to see the pendulum shift away from the progress gained during Vatican II. I wish it weren’t so, but that is the way of things. Luckily, as Martin Luther King, jr. said, “The arc of the universe, though long, always points toward justice.”
Some Mystical Songs
- Almost Like Being In Love King Cole Trio
- Resurrection Remy Zero
- My Sweet Lord George Harrison
- All At Sea Jamie Cullum
- King Without A Crown Matisyahu
- Upside Down Jack Johnson
- Connected Katharine McPhee
- Higher Love Steve Winwood
- Show Me John Legend
- Who Cares Bobby Sweet
- In Your Eyes Peter Gabriel
- Born This Way Lady Gaga
In so many of the religious dialogues I have with people, whether they be classes, sermons, discussions, or blogposts, there always seem to be one or two who disagree with me (which is welcome, of course) and they almost always cite the work of G.K. Chesterton. Consequently, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding of perennialism that is present in Chesterton’s work. This is not to say that Chesterton wouldn’t find some other reason to disagree with perennialism, ecumenism, or pluralism, but I think it might be helpful to those influenced by him in their encounters with these ideas.
In 1925, G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:
“These Theosophists build a pantheon; but it is only a pantheon for pantheists. They call a Parliament of Religions as a reunion of all the peoples; but it is only a reunion of all the prigs. Yet exactly such a pantheon had been set up two thousand years before by the shores of the Mediterranean; and Christians were invited to set up the image of Jesus side by side with the image of Jupiter, of Mithras, of Osiris, of Atys, or of Ammon. It was the refusal of the Christians that was the turning-point of history. If the Christians had accepted, they and the whole world would have certainly, in a grotesque but exact metaphor, gone to pot. They would all have been boiled down to one lukewarm liquid in that great pot of cosmopolitan corruption in which all the other myths and mysteries were already melting.”
In what appears to me to be a highly emotive reaction to perennialist ideas, Chesterton fails to make a not-so-subtle distinction. There is an importance difference between asking Christians to place their God alongside the gods of other religions, and asking them to consider the idea that Jesus and the rest of those deities and avatars are all manifestations of the one true God.
It is true that Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But what does “through me” mean? This can soundly be interpreted to mean “through the type of life I have shown you,” which means that anyone who follows the way of Krishna or Gandhi or Mohammad or Buddha is also following “the way the truth and the life.” Similarly, Christian tradition tells us, “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ has come again.” Who is to say that Christ hasn’t died, risen, and come again dozens of times, in the forms of the spiritual luminaries of other traditions?
Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to give up the exclusivity of Christ’s salvation, but in another view it’s really just expanding the reach of that salvation. Perennialism refuses to put human limits on Christ. Perennialism may seem to be asking Christians to lower their God into a pantheon of lesser gods, but it is only asking them to entertain the idea that all of these Gods are ultimately One.
If anyone wants to continue to believe in an exclusivist form of Christianity–or of any religion, for that matter–I understand. But I would ask you to understand the perennialist view for what it is: Not a paganism offered over and against Christianity, but a transcendent theory preserving and enhancing the legitimacy of all wisdom traditions.